Some Notes on the 2017 Dakar Rally

01/16/2017 @ 6:05 pm, by Jensen Beeler13 COMMENTS

The 2017 Dakar Rally is done and dusted. The competitors are either already on their way home, or now spending a well-deserved vacation in South America, after tackling what is easily the most difficult motorcycle race on the planet.

The Dakar is of course iconic and well-known for its difficulty, where it is not uncommon to see riders perish on its course, but this year’s rally raid was billed as one of the most challenging editions of the Dakar Rally ever.

When a man like Marc Coma – a man who has won the race five times – tells you that, your default mode is to believe him.

Tackling that challenge were 143 riders, of which only on 96 made it all the way to Buenos Aires. And while KTM has been the dominant manufacturer for the past 15 years, the 2017 edition saw early on that any of the major four brands could have a hand on the trophy in Argentina.

Of course we know that KTM made it to a sweet 16th victory, sweeping the podium no less, but the results sheet betrays what happened on the course. As such, I wanted to share some notes I have from the 2017 Dakar Rally.

When It Rains…

I hate to start talking about the Dakar Rally with words about the weather, but how can we not discuss the torrential rain that plagued this year’s race?

Ultimately two stages of the 2017 Dakar Rally were dropped, several course deviations were made, and one stage was shortened in distance because of the weather.

This weather is important though, as it fundamentally changed the course of events for The Dakar. This is because fewer timed stages means fewer opportunities not only for mistakes, but also for triumphs. 

One can argue that the reduction in timed stages, which occurred not only after Toby Price’s retirement, but also after the Honda riders received their one-hour time penalties (I’ll get to that in a minute), helped solidify Sam Sunderland into the winning position.

That is not said in order to detract from Sunderland’s ride to the finish – as we saw with Husqvarna’s Pablo Quintanilla – adversity is not picky about who it plagues on the leaderboard.

So, to finish and to win the Dakar Rally is a praiseworthy achievement, in any case, and it certainly is so with Sam Sunderland – Britain’s first Dakar winner.

But, we should be cognizant that circumstances helped setup and steer Sunderland and KTM to run the race they did, and thus dictates how they managed the lead from the fifth stage and on.

It’s Good to Be King

KTM is the king of the Dakar, and the even with their top rider out of contention, the Austrian brand has a well-honed playbook on how to manage not only racing into the lead of the Dakar Rally, but how to keep a lead once they have achieved it.

Having that kind of support was a huge boon to Sunderland, and is one of the reasons why KTM dominates this iconic race. Yes, the bikes are good. Yes, they have some of the mechanics and support crew. And yes they employ some of the best racers in the sport.

But like all of racing, Victory often goes to the most well-prepared and tested, and KTM is that group. They have made a science out of racing in the Dakar Rally, and that experience has bled over into its Husqvarna team, which has shown prowess from Day One.

The only way for other teams to close that knowledge gap is through experience – either experience earned from making the mistakes themselves, or experience bought, by hiring away some of KTM’s top talent. We have seen glimmers of both methods, thus far. 

Hard to Be Honda

Contrast KTM’s result with Honda Racing’s outcome in the 2017 Dakar Rally. Lead rider Joan Barreda won more stages than any other rider, and this year the Honda CRF450 Rally looked to finally have the reliability needed to make it through the duration of the Dakar Rally.

While Honda’s racing package was typical of HRC – measured and potent – the Japanese factory showed its naiveté when it comes to the Dakar Rally, misinterpreting the rulebook on refueling protocols.

The key here is that rally raids are just as much about going fast during the timed stages, as they are following strict procedures and schedules throughout the other portions of the race.

Note too, the timed portions of the race are much shorter than the overall distance on any given day – in some ways, the importance that should be given to the rules the govern the non-racing parts of the race are more important. Honda just learned this lesson the hard way.

Another lesson too, the Dakar Rally, as with all racing series, have their politics. Honda is still a junior senator in this political arena, and one can argue whether such a game-changing penalty would have been levied against a more senior competitor.

Those with leanings to conspiracy theories will take the politics of racing one step further, though I don’t share that opinion.

The What If’s

While many will see the Honda fuel fiasco as a negative part of the 2017 Dakar Rally, I see it differently. It confirms that KTM is no longer the presumed winner of next year’s edition. 

While, it is not quite as simple to deduct the one-hour penalty from the times of the Honda riders and to recalculate the results, doing so certainly shows the potential of HRC. Honda of course races to win.

I suspect that if the penalty had not occurred, we would have seen a much closer fight to Buenos Aires. Instead of managing a lead, Sunderland and KTM would have to fight on every stage to make up ground on Barreda and Honda.

Conversely, Joan Barreda would not have been as free to push in the stages after the penalty. Instead, he likely would have been riding more conservatively, managing his distance to his competitors.

Would the leaderboard change? Maybe, maybe not. You can’t pull one string without affecting a multitude of others.

The thing about the Dakar Rally is that the position of a rider or team on a given day, helps govern the strategy of their competitors, and simple things like who leads the start of a given stage, and who gets to follow (and thus who gets to benefits from their tracks), can be enough to change a result.

 And Then There Were Four

The takeaway I see here is the depth of the Dakar Rally field now. Gone are the riders that dominated this race: Marc Coma and Cyril Despres.

KTM’s dominance is also in question, with its sister brand Husqvarna in the rally now, and with both Honda and Yamaha now fielding teams that are on a new level of competitiveness.

After seeing this year’s result, Honda surely has to be in contention for a win in the 2018 edition. Similarly, Yamaha has shown itself as being a stage-winner on any given day, and is surely capable of stringing together a few days into an overall result.

I still think Yamaha is a year away from being a true contender, but who know what fortunes could unfold in the coming 365 days or so.

As for Husqvarna, I am always curious to see where its riders land. A Husqvarna win would benefit KTM AG’s bottom line, but then again…a 17th-straight KTM win would benefit the parent company much more.

In business, it is always best to cannibalize your own sales, rather than see your competitor do it for you. In racing, in a situation like this, the same can probably be said.

Having a strong Husqvarna team, one capable of winning outright, only helps KTM on race day – giving usurpers like Honda and Yamaha one more challenger. It also adds a layer of redundancy to achieving the desired result.

Free to make their own strategies, manage and develop their own machine, and field their own racers, Husqvarna can explore and build upon what KTM rejects in racing and in development. They can also be used to independently confirm their decisions as well.

In many sports, we see top-level competitors train and compete against sparring partners, and that is the role I see for Husqvarna in the Dakar Rally. Free to take the gambles and risks that KTM may not, they can push – and maybe defeat – their sister brand like no one else can. 

This is a tough advantage to overcome, and it is how KTM will handle this new threat to its status as the team to beat in the Dakar Rally. 

There is a yin and yang here to the coming Dakar Rally editions, where more challengers mean more possibilities for new winners, but it also means a new strategy from the throne holder, one that is not easily bested.

It’s a year away, but I’m already looking forward to the next chapter of this story – even if the Dakar Rally is my least favorite event to cover each year.

Photo: HRC